Saturday, February 20, 2010

Hong Kong looking to the future

When Hong Kong kicked off their appearance at the East Asian Championship with a heavy defeat against South Korea, head coach Kim Pan-gon was asked if the loss signaled the end of the optimism from his team’s gold medal win in December’s East Asian Games.

“I hope our confidence hasn’t disappeared, but this is our situation,” said Kim. “We are still too far from Korea and Japan and, just because once you get the gold medal, you can’t change much.

“It has just given us confidence, but now we need to invest more than before. Given the quality of our football and the football culture in Hong Kong, we still are too far behind these countries.

“It’s not going to take 10 years, it’s going to be 20 or more if we want to catch Korea or Japan. We have to change the league system; everything has to change.

“One gold medal can’t change it but I hope it can start because of that.”

The mood in Hong Kong since Kim’s team defeated Japan in a penalty shootout in the final of December’s East Asian Games had been buoyant to say the least, even if the standard of the competition fell far short of that on display in Tokyo earlier this month.

In December in Hong Kong, the Japanese, Chinese and North Koreans were represented by what were essentially U-23 teams while the South Koreans sent a squad of semi-professional players from the nation’s second division.

Hong Kong, too, was represented by a youthful squad – as per the rules of the competition – but the gold medal success led to a vastly improved mood within the game in the former British colony, the run to the final provoking an outpouring of pride in themselves and the team rarely seen in Hong Kong.

The gold medal win followed fast on the heels of South China’s run to the semifinals of the AFC Cup – the second leg of which attracted a crowd of close to 30,000 to Hong Kong Stadium – but, as Kim pointed out, football in Hong Kong still has a long way to go.

Over the course of the next two games at the East Asian Championship – a 3-0 loss to the Japanese and a 2-0 defeat at the hands of tournament winners China – Kim took the opportunity to introduce a new generation of players to the rigours of international football.

Principal among the players who shone when given the chance to play against the region’s leading nations was goalkeeper Yapp Hun-fei who, at just 19 years of age, proved himself more than capable of flourishing at international level. A string of fine saves against both Japan and China kept the scoreline in both games respectable.

“Our goalkeeper played at the East Asian Games and he was one of the key players when we won the gold medal,” said the Korean. “At the East Asian Games he did a brilliant job and so we gave him a chance against Japan and he improved a lot so we decided to use him again.”

The future of the team remains uncertain, though, with Kim’s contract only covering his side’s final Asian Cup qualifier against Yemen next month, a match which means little as both sides have already been eliminated.

And while Hong Kong are not likely to challenge the major powers of Asian football any time soon, superficially things are moving in something approaching the right direction.

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